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So-you-want-to-be-a-writer---Episode-34

Ep 34 Rebecca James on high expectations, print books are still winning, take criticism the right way, how to be a successful poet and more!

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In Episode 34 of So you want to be a writer, print books are still selling better than ebooks, how to write paragraphs, how do you take criticism? Top 10 tips for being a successful poet, what winning the Man Booker prize means, the reason why some blogs succeed, creating your writer platform, find your blogging community, 4 things authors can do to promote their work, Writer in Residence Rebecca James, purr your way to productivity, the best place to do an interview and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

Print Books Outsold Ebooks In First Half Of 2014

How to write paragraphs

How do you take criticism?

Top 10 tips for being a successful poet

What winning the Man Booker prize would mean to best-selling author Richard Flanagan (and yes, he won!)

The One Big Reason Some Blogs Succeed, While Others Crash and Burn

Create Your Writer Platform: The Key to Building an Audience, Selling More Books, and Finding Success as an Author

Problogger Community

Ask Valerie: 4 things authors can do to promote their book

Writer in Residence

Rebecca James spent her early twenties working as a waitress, her late twenties teaching English in Indonesia and Japan, and most of her thirties having babies and working as a kitchen designer.

She has started several university degrees but has yet to place any letters after her name. Despite her highly developed procrastinatory skills she has somehow managed to finish writing a book or two – and plans to spend her forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties finishing several more.

She lives in Canberra with her partner, their four sons and two dogs. Her third book, Cooper Bartholomew is Dead, is due to be released mid-october.

Rebecca’s blog
Rebecca on Twitter
Allen & Unwin on Twitter

Web Pick

My Noise
(Here’s the purring one!)

Working Writer’s Tip

Where is the best place to do an interview?
Answered in the podcast!

The Mapmaker Chronicles is available to purchase!

Find out more here.

Sign up to the Australian Writers’ Centre Newsletter!

Just fill in your details over here.

Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait
@valeriekhoo

Email us
podcast at writerscentre.com.au

Transcript

Allison

Rebecca James is an Australian YA author who’s debut novel, Beautiful Malice, sparked an aggressive bidding war worldwide, and was published in 2010 to much fanfare and acclaim. She has since written two more novels, including Cooper Bartholomew is Dead, which is out now.

Welcome Rebecca, and thank you for coming to our show.

Rebecca
Thanks for having me.

Allison
Let’s begin with Beautiful Malice, which of course was a very big story in publishing circles at the time. Can you tell us the story of that novel’s road to publication?

Rebecca
Sure, first of all I wrote the book, which took a couple of years. I wasn’t working full time [as a writer] then, I had a business and my four kids. Then when I had a finished draft I thought about getting an agent. I emailed agents all over the world, had loads and loads of rejections, about 80, but I was getting some good feedback. A lot of people were saying, “I really love the book, but not sure how to sell it.” I knew I had a story that people would enjoy, so I kept going.

Eventually I got an agent in London, a woman called Jo Unwin. We worked on it a bit together for about six months, and then she submitted in Australia. After a few weeks Erica Wagner from Allen & Unwin offered on it.

Allison
What was the time process on that? You said it took you a couple of years to write, how long did it take you to find an agent?

Rebecca
It took two years to write. I think it must have been about six months to get an agent. From the date when I first started sending out query emails to the day Jo said, “Yes, I’ll take you on.” I know it was just before Christmas.

Allison
Then, what? Another six to eight months after that —

Rebecca
We worked together on it between five and six months. It was about Christmas, then she started submitting it the beginning of June the following year, that would have been 2009.

Allison
OK, then it came out in 2010?

Rebecca
Yes.

Allison
You said it was rejected countless time on your bio on your website, what was it about this story that made you keep trying? Why did you think, “This is going to be all right in the end.”?

Rebecca
I had an agent previously and I had a book published by a very small press. I had a book sitting in acquisitions for six months with my previous agent, I found it quite easy to give up on that book when things didn’t happen, but with Beautiful Malice I didn’t feel the same. I felt like it was definitely my best work. I felt like I loved the story and I think those agents — a lot of them were rejecting it — a lot of them were saying, “I love the story. I couldn’t put it down, but… but… but…I don’t know how to sell it.” I guess I just have this kind of dogged faith that a good story would work for somebody, I suppose.

Allison
If you were sort of looking at your writing history, how many novels had you written before Beautiful Malice?

Rebecca
Three complete novels.

Allison
Were they also young adult, or were they adult novels?

Rebecca
One was probably on the cusp, university-age students, and that’s the one I had an agent with and we when to acquisitions with that publisher in America. It would probably be what you call ‘New Adult’ now, I guess.

Allison
Yeah.

Rebecca
I suppose Beautiful Malice could have sort of fit into that genre too. That genre, category, whatever you call it, New Adult, didn’t really exist then, people weren’t talking about it. I guess because Beautiful Malice kind of fit there, that’s why it was so hard to publish. My prior book was too. Sorry, I’m getting confused by the book that didn’t ever go anywhere, probably would have sat right there too. The other was an adult book.

Allison
Basically, you had practise with a few different ideas before you got to Beautiful Malice?

Rebecca
Yeah.

Allison
Once you actually got the book over the line with Allen & Unwin, things really took off for you, didn’t they? It ended up selling into a lot of territories, there were a lot of people interested in it. Of course, there was a lot of publicity around the fact that you ended up with quite a large advance out of that. What happens when you get a huge advance? Is it life-changing?

Rebecca
It was certainly life-changing in way I thought about writing, because I then thought, “Well, I can make this job.” In a way I kind of had to make it a job, at least for 2010, because I was traveling overseas and doing lots of writing gigs. I didn’t have time for much else, plus I was contracted for the next book in most of the territories.

A huge advance — I guess it could mean different things. The newspapers just say, “Wow, she sold her book for a million dollars…” when, in fact, I sold two books over 52 countries and it added up to about a million dollars. I didn’t get a big chunk, a million dollars, suddenly sitting in my bank account, the money was spread out over my first two books.

Allison
You essentially had the pressure of having to produce a second book with that?

Rebecca
Yeah, I did. And I didn’t succeed. I mean I went two years kind of over the deadline. I guess I panicked.

Allison
OK, that was going to be my next question. What happened next? Was there huge pressure to live up to the hype that surrounded Beautiful Malice?

Rebecca
I don’t know, it’s hard even now in hindsight to think what happened or what went wrong, or why I couldn’t get the book out on time.

I think I did spend 2010 traveling. I don’t even think I was thinking, “Gosh, can it live up to the hype?” I don’t think you sort of think in those terms yourself. Certainly you’re hoping that people will like it and you have expectations from publishers. But, I was in a little bit of a tricky situation because in Australia, and in lots of the territories I was getting published into, they had published it as a YA book. In the States they had published it as an adult book. So, people did want me to write a crossover book.

Allison
Again. Right.

Rebecca
That is actually quite hard. Though I may have done it with Beautiful Malice, I hadn’t intended to. When someone says, “OK, write another crossover,” I found it a hard balance and a hard thing to pull over when I had to do it.

Allison
So, it affected your writing perspective of — obviously you had to try a few different things until you got your second book together?

Rebecca
Yeah. So, though my second published book ended up being Sweet Damage, which was published last year, the initial contract for the second book was Cooper Bartholomew, which is coming out in October.

Allison
OK, that’s interesting.

Rebecca
I wrote Cooper in 2010, as my second book. I submitted it and people weren’t really happy, so the Americans said, “It’s too young.” It didn’t kind of fit at the time. I put it aside, which may have been a mistake. It’s very easy to dump a book when it gets hard. And so I wrote something else, I wrote Sweet Damage.

I have now come back and finished Cooper, and that’s coming out in October, and I’m really happy with it.

Allison
That’s great. Tell us about Cooper. This is very much firmly in the Young Adult area?

Rebecca
Again, I find it hard to categorize my own work. It’s certainly very upper YA, the characters are at university. A couple of the reviewers on Goodreads have said that they would call it New Adult.

Allison
New Adult? Now that there’s a category for it.

Rebecca
Yeah, now that you can give it a label, I suppose. I don’t mind, I have no objection to whatever category people want to put it in, or how people want to define it. That’s fine.

I think it could be an adult book. Yeah, I’m not sure. I think I’ll wait to see what people say. I like to think of it as an upper YA book, I guess, yeah.

Allison
All right.

Rebecca
I would hope my audience are people from 15 and up.

Allison
All right. Obviously, writing for young people, either young at heart or young people, is obviously your audience —

Rebecca
I don’t think of it as writing for young people, because that feels like now I’m excluding adults, I think I’m writing about young people.

Allison
OK, there you go. Why that particular audience? Why are you writing about young people? Why did you choose that?

Rebecca
I think primarily, right now, it’s because that’s where I’m being published at the moment. In a professional sense, it would make sense to do that. In a more artistic sense, I enjoy that age because I think it’s full of conflict. There’s a whole lot of firsts and a whole lot of people working out where they fit or where they want to fit. The whole concept of coming of age has always seemed odd to me because I still, at 44, don’t think I’ve necessarily come of age, or there comes a point where you know yourself, or you know the answers. I think life is a continual process of coming of age.

I do think it’s an interesting time. It’s full of potential for conflict and drama.

Allison
With Cooper Bartholomew is Dead where did the idea for it come from? 

Don’t you love that question? I love asking that question and I hate answering it.

Rebecca
That’s to put the authors on the spot.

Allison
Yeah.

Rebecca
I don’t know, the place they all come from, Allison. You know? You know where that is.

Allison
Out in the ether somewhere.

Rebecca
I don’t know.

Allison
Was it the kind of idea where you — because you know ideas are funny things. I think sometimes you have those ideas that just appear fully formed like they’ve always been in the back of your mind and they’re just waiting for you to write them down, and then you have other ideas which are just like a bit of a glimpse of something and you start to write and it begins to grow as you go. Which was it, do you think?

Rebecca
I think it might have always been that glimpse. All of my books have changed a lot in the writing, or I haven’t known where they’re going and it’s surprised me. I think Cooper mainly just started with the idea. Sometimes talking about feels like I’m making it up now.

Allison
Right.

Rebecca
The truest thing that I can think to say, I thought of a very popular, a very nice, genuinely nice boy being dead in a mysterious way and the kind of impact that would have on the people who loved him and what they’d do. That was the kind of kernel of the idea and then it grew and stretched out and expanded from there.

Allison
Became a book.

Rebecca
It did. Yeah.

It was actually various versions of the same book.

Allison
How long does it take you to write a book? Like, are you a person who plots every detail and then just sits down and bangs it out? Or do you just start? How does it work for you?

Rebecca
I just start. I have an idea of what it’s about and a kind of rough outline in my head, I barely even write anything, as in notes or spreadsheets, I don’t do any of that. If I do write notes I tend to lose them, it is just in my head and it changes as I go. It takes a while.

At the point where I write — this is what I do, I sit down and I write, say, 800 words, then I go away and come back. I read over those words again, I edit them as I go and then continue in a really boring methodic way. In one sense, the kind of day-to-day writing sense I’m quite boring and methodic, I just sit down and do it A to B, but in another sense, in the big picture I kind of have no idea what is going on either. It’s a bit…

Allison
You have a good routine going?

Rebecca
Yeah. Yeah, that’s not to say I don’t procrastinate a lot and that I actually do those 800 words everyday, but when I’m on a roll that’s how it might work.

Allison
How much redrafting do you do then? Like as far as once you get your first draft down, what happens after that?

Rebecca
With both Sweet Damage and Cooper I did a lot. I think the situation changes once you’re published, I think. With Beautiful Malice, if it had been as messy as my second and third books, when I was trying to get an agent, I wouldn’t have got one. Of course, I think it’s probably true to say for a lot of people, your first book needs to be your tidiest and your very best, the best you can do by the time you’re sending it out. Then with Sweet Damage and Cooper I had people who wanted to see it. When I had done the first draft I was already showing people and getting their feedback and getting help immediately. It’s quite different.

I feel like with Beautiful Malice, I mean I had already spent two years writing it, then another six months with my agent editing it, so that when I got my first edits, even though I had three editors, Australian, English and an American editor, it was quite easy. It wasn’t huge. Structurally, it pretty much stayed the same. But with my second one, because I had them in really early, or first draft kind of shape, they needed a lot more structural help.

Allison
Right, so the drafting situation changes once you’re actually over the line or something?

Rebecca
I think so. It has for me. I don’t know that’s necessarily the case for everyone. I don’t necessarily know, and I hope it’s not like that with my next book, I’m actually hoping that it’s a lot tidier when I hand in the first draft and I don’t have to tear it up so much and rewrite it, but I would hope that all the time. Everyone hopes that things are easy.

Allison
Are you working on a book now? Are you working on a new book?

Rebecca
Yeah, I am. Yeah.

Allison
Do you write everyday when you’re working on a book?

Rebecca
Well, I intend to. These are my intentions…

Allison
I see.

Rebecca
But, things get in the way — children, not that they get in the way, but they might be sick, they might have the day off. I might procrastinate on Facebook or Twitter, but, yeah, I do try Monday to Friday, while the kids are at school.

Allison
I was going to say, that was my next question, how do you fit it in with a family? Do you treat it like your day job?

Rebecca
Yes.

Allison
Right. OK.

Rebecca
At the moment. At the moment I’m in a very fortunate position that I can do that.

Allison
Right. OK.

Speaking of Facebook and Twitter and all of the other stuff, what are your thoughts on author platform? I know you have a blog called Lollygag, do you enjoy blogging?

Rebecca
When I have written one and put it up I enjoy it, and I enjoy having people read it and give me feedback. I sometimes feel anxious about it, in, “I’m not doing it enough,” and then it can feel like a burden. Blogging twice a year, by all accounts, really not the way to blog.

Yeah, the whole social media and author platform thing I’m never certain about. I’ve talked to author friends about it, a lot. I can see the need for it, I also think that it can be very distracting and take you away from the things you can control, which is your own work. I feel like it can give you an illusion sometimes of being really good, because you’re just in a bubble of people talking about your book, which isn’t necessarily reflecting the whole world. I don’t know, I talk to someone who’s not on social media and they don’t even know what Twitter is and they think, “Who am I talking to on Twitter anyway?” “People who are already converted?” I don’t know. It’s a strange thing and I don’t have any clear answers on it all.

It confuses me. I’ve confused myself.

Allison
Where do you put your social media efforts? Your Twitter and Facebook, are those your main two?

Rebecca
Twitter — yeah, and Facebook. Facebook is also my family and friends, so that feels a bit of a mix between just socialising and book publicity. Yeah, that’s about it, I guess. And, I blog about twice or three times a year.

Allison
Excellent. OK. Good start.

Are you an author that does a lot of speaking engagements? Are you going to writers’ festivals or library talks or any of that sort of stuff, like as far as that goes?

Rebecca
Hopefully when Cooper comes out there will be a few events, which I will certainly then blog and tweet and Facebook about. But, no, most of my life is just at home with my kids and being a mom and a writer at home, that’s basically it.

Allison
That’s the reality of it, isn’t it? The reality of the glamour.

Rebecca
Yeah, that’s the reality of it. I mean some people do a lot of school events and things like that, but that’s not what I do. It hasn’t really happened.

Allison
Is that because you’re so busy with your family that you don’t sort of seek that sort of stuff out? Or do you not enjoy public speaking?

Rebecca
I feel like it would take a lot away from writing. Writing feels like it’s already so hard to get a roll on, just having four kids and stuff. The writing days are quite short and limited, so by the time… for example, I’ve taken the kids to school, cleaned up a little bit, I might sit down at 10:00 and then at 2:00 it’s kind of time to stop. Four hours isn’t a great amount of time. If I also had to do school visits and things like that, I just feel like it would really limit it.

Allison
You mentioned you have an agent, what made you decide to get an agent in the first place? Why did you go down that road?

Rebecca
I did most of my research just on the net of how to get published, I think just what I was reading on different writer forums and different writers’ blogs and the people who put this information on the net was that was the best way to go. There really weren’t many publishers taking unsolicited manuscripts at the time. It just seemed really hard. Yeah, it seemed like a really hard thing to do.

Also you could email an agent, you could just email them and they would respond, whereas it’s much harder to print out a manuscript and post it to a publisher and wait a year to hear back or whatever it could be. I guess I’m kind of someone who likes the immediate responses and emailing an agent seemed —

Allison
The way forward?

Rebecca
— the way to go, yeah.

Allison
Let’s talk about writers’ block, do you ever suffer from writers’ block?

Rebecca
Yeah, everyday. I mean can just sit there and think, “I can’t think of a word to say,” or I can think of what I need to say, but I can’t get the words out… or, “This is torture.” It’s hard work, but then the more practical sense is you just have to sit there and do the work and get the words out.

Allison
What do you do to overcome it? Is it just a matter of you just sit there until you get it done? Or do you go for a walk? Or do you do — is there anything you do on a regular basis to kind of keep things rolling along?

Rebecca
I think just sitting there, doing it, really. I don’t have any particular conscious thing that I would do to overcome it. I have a lot of cups of tea. I would get up and sometimes just hang out some wet washing.

Allison
I find that really therapeutic, I like hanging out the washing.

Rebecca
Yeah. Sometimes just doing a bit of housework, something different, something more physical is just a nice way to break it up. Always it’s going to come down to sitting back down on a chair and just working through the hard bits. I do think it’s more —

Allison
It’s like walking through concrete some days, isn’t it?

Rebecca
Yeah, it’s just hard sometimes. It’s a long task, isn’t it? Writing a whole book, up to 80,000 words by yourself before you really get any feedback or reward for your work. Yeah, it’s a long thing to do and lonely process.

Allison
The last thing I would ask you is what are your three top tips for writers?

Rebecca
Oh…

Allison
“Oh…” she says.

Rebecca
I should have had these ready at the top of my head.

Allison
I know, this is always the way, because just like to spring these on the end. I should warn people, really, to know.

Rebecca
I’ll say the top three things and then later be thinking, “No, that’s not them, I should have said something else.”

I think you have to read a lot, write a lot, edit a lot, and keep trying.

Allison
Those are excellent things.

Rebecca
That’s four things, isn’t it?

Allison
That is four, so you’ve over-delivered and everything — well done.

Rebecca
I can’t count!

Allison
All right, thank you so much for your time today, Rebecca. It’s been great chatting with you. Good luck with Cooper, I hope he goes out into the world and is greeted with open arms. Thanks very much for your time.

Rebecca
Pleasure. Thank you.

Oct 15, 2014 Podcasts Australian Writers' Centre Team

Written by Australian Writers' Centre Team

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